Sizzle Then Fizzle: Buzzy Titles and Borrowing Digitized Books

While people all over the world have been at home due to COVID-19, recent reports about library usage indicate they have turned to books for comfort and enjoyment. Our own site has seen an increase in traffic and bandwidth consumption, and usage of our digital library has increased as well. Given our current situation with COVID-19, it may be no surprise that certain titles have captured the reading public’s attention, such as Sylvia Browne’s “End of Days,” in which the author predicts “around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe…” 

End of Days by Sylvia Browne

The book has been available through the Internet Archive’s controlled digital lending library since 2014, but had virtually no checkouts or usage until it became “buzzy”—it was featured in a popular social media post in early March and since then, the preview of the page has been included in a number of popular web sites and publications. Because of this interest, the book continues to be among the top viewed at the Internet Archive right now. But interestingly enough, people aren’t checking the book out. They preview the one page with the timely prediction, and then they browse away from the book. This isn’t an isolated event—other books in our library have also seen dramatic increases in interest simply due to popular news. 

Take the example of “Wasted” by Mark Judge, which we spoke about in terms of controlled digital lending back in November 2018. The book entered the public dialogue during then-DC Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing to be the next Supreme Court Justice. Kavanaugh was confirmed and, of interest to the library and information transparency communities, joined the majority in the recent Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org Inc. case that held that copyright protection does not extend to the law.

In the case of “Wasted,” the book originally had a limited print run, so there were very few copies in libraries. It was a “buzzy” title—everyone wanted a copy, including both political parties, the media, and Justice Kavanaugh’s supporters and detractors. Because of the limited supply and high demand, book sellers were offering used copies for thousands of dollars online. It was essentially impossible to locate a copy.

Among those few libraries with a copy was Boston Public Library, which had one copy housed in their non-circulating research collection. Using their existing on-site Internet Archive scanning center, they scanned the book, returned the physical copy to the closed stacks, and made the digital copy available through controlled digital lending to one user at a time.

Those who wanted to queue up to read [“Wasted”] could join a waitlist, just like at your public library. And they did.

Where controlled digital lending didn’t work was meeting the immediate demand of a crushing media news cycle that wanted to read the book. Because there was only one physical copy of the book, only one person could checkout the digital copy and read it at a time, and with our standard 14 day circulation period, the digital book would circulate an estimated 30 times per year. Those who wanted to queue up to read the book could join a waitlist, just like at your public library. And they did. Within 24 hours of making the book available at, its waitlist had jumped to more than 400 people. In the nearly 18 months since, the waitlist topped out at more than 800 people, meaning that someone joining the list at its peak would be waiting more than 20 years for their turn to read. 

But all of that changed when we launched the National Emergency Library which gave us an unexpected opportunity for an experiment. By suspending waitlists for our books, all of the users on the waitlist could check out the book without delay. We notified users by email, as is our norm, that they could now check out the book.

It turned out most users did not want to check out the book when they were eventually offered the opportunity. Some did check out the book, but few. In the week after the launch of the NEL, 50 copies were on loan. Following our previously reported circulation patterns, 90% of those borrows go stagnant within the first hour (most much faster), meaning that users stop interacting with the book, so there were may be closer to five actual readers of the book. Today, the book is not checked out by any users. This blog post will again raise interest in the book, and so it will likely have more borrows over the next week (the number likely depends on the reach of this post) before it again returns to a lower, post-buzz circulation level.

Once waitlists were relaxed and all of those users could finally read the book, the vast majority didn’t.

“End of Days” and “Wasted” aren’t unique. Current events will often trigger a fleetingly higher interest in older books on various topics. And so what does this mean? Here are some preliminary thoughts, with more to come in a subsequent blog post:

  • “Buzzy” titles have a short shelf life. Once the news cycle moves on, so does public interest. Though it numbered in the 800s, the waitlist for “Wasted” showed pent up, and ultimately expired, demand for the title, especially since the news story is now nearly 18 months old. Once waitlists were relaxed and all of those users could finally read the book, the vast majority didn’t. We expect a similar pattern to emerge around “End of Days” once our waitlists are restored.
  • People rarely read the book even after checking it out. When it comes to these buzzy titles most users just want to flip through to see the interesting bits and then move on because they’re not really interested in the subject of the book, just the news story. It’s a similar pattern to the users who come to our books through a citation in Wikipedia—they’re brought into our books through a link to a page, they read the page or two they need for context or verification, and then they’re out of the book. The difference with Wikipedia links, however, is that those links help users identify books that they can check out and dive into deeper if they’re working on a research project or term paper, so the motivation to engage with the book is stronger than for the average social media post.

As previously highlighted, two weeks after the NEL launch we posted early usage and circulation trends that we had observed. We plan to release an update on those trends and to report any additional findings about how people are using the NEL. We highlight these data so that our community can have a better understanding of what’s being used in the NEL and how it’s being accessed, so that we can build these considerations into future digital library infrastructures.  

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6 thoughts on “Sizzle Then Fizzle: Buzzy Titles and Borrowing Digitized Books

  1. Not Quite Zorro

    We plan to release an update on those trends and to report any additional findings about how people are using the NEL.

    I’m sure I am not the only one looking forward to reading future posts on this topic.

    I find it particularly interesting that demand is so fickle, even at a price point of $0. It would be nice if NEL statistics could be used to make a case that would cause US copyright laws to resemble something sane.

    (I mean, 95 years? Really? A half-century from the date of creation isn’t enough copyright protection?)

  2. Pingback: National Emergency Library Weekly Update: 5/27 - Internet Archive Blogs

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